Groundnut schemes

During the post-war economic reconstruction period, the British Government began an ambitious scheme to provide vegetable oils that were in short supply globally. In 1946, a new proposal was made to the British Minister, by a Mr. Samuel who was the chair of the United African Company (the Unilever Group) on a visit to East Africa, on new development approaches for increasing food production. According to J. Wakefield10’ it was not until 1947—with the formation of the Overseas Food Corporation—that a new project to produce such oils from groundnuts to be grown in East Africa, justifying it on the grounds that the ‘measures are necessary to fill the gap in the world supply of edible fats.’106 The project enjoyed strong political support and provided the authorities with the prospect of harnessing European technology for large-scale agricultural production. The schemes served as a field laboratory to experiment with new agrarian development that—if successful—would demonstrate that ‘prepackaged development schemes’ were most appropriate in the colonies.10. The groundnut schemes were larger than any development initiatives that the colonial governments had previously attempted, far exceeding what could be achieved using indi- genous technology and knowledge.

The British Government and colonial authorities realized that growing the crop by African peasants alone would not satisfy global market demands; yet they knew that African labor was vital for the success of the project. Therefore, they argued that if African labor was utilized and the project was successful, the benefits to the African population would exceed anything that they could expect from traditional farming systems. A note in the East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal was emphatic about the potential outcomes, stating: ‘If the groundnut scheme is successful, the pro- ductive power of every African employed in it will be unbelievably greater than under the present agricultural methods.’108 The report did not clarify how this success would be achieved. In contrast, a few agricultural research- ers had cautioned against such optimism.109

Earlier field observation work by John Wakefield110 reported that African farmers had grown groundnuts on a small scale, producing from 544 kg to 908 kg per acre. The only reason that had prevented African peasants from growing the crop on a large scale was the difficult of clearing thick bush with their limited technology. The British Government gave its final approval in 1947 to the groundnut schemes. The cabinet mission was ferried across East Africa in a Royal Air force plane, covering 18,630 km of potential areas for the schemes in Tanganyika, Northern Rhodesia (present day Zambia), Uganda and Kenya. Later the Kenyan sites were left out due to their unsuitability. The project—at a cost of £23 million—was approved by the British cabinet and included the construction of a railway line to the sites to transport the produce more efficiently. The scale of land clearing planned required the use of heavy machinery.111 Using caterpillar tractors pulling chains, a total of 3,210,000 acres of natural vegetation across the three colonies were designated for clearing. The colonial officials used standard American machinery that was not suitable for the soils of East Africa. Unfortunately, by removing the vegetation, the tractor blades also removed the source of soil organic matter that promotes soil fertility.112 The schemes eventually cost some £37 million, instead of the approved amount.113

The British Overseas Food Cooperation had forecast the yields of groundnuts in Tanganyika and Uganda sites at 56,000 tons per annum in 1948, increasing to 609,000 tons per annum by 1951. Contrary to this optimistic forecast, however, the yield at the end of 1951 was a paltry 9,162 tons of nuts after an expenditure of £35 million.114 In Tanganyika, the expected 128,000 acres per annum of land to be cleared of vegetation and planted with groundnuts in 1947, turned out to be only 60,000 acres. Furthermore, in the planted areas, yields were dismal, despite the high costs of planting. Havinden and Meredith11’ report that the mechanical harvesting of the nuts also failed: ‘After the rains, the denuded ground baked hard in the sun and proved too difficult for the harvesters, with the result that many of the groundnuts were left in the ground or had to [be] dug up by hand.’ During the planting season of 1948 only 15,000 acres, plus an additional 20,000 acres were planted, bringing total land cleared to 35,000 acres. In south Busoga in Uganda, an area of 750 acres was cleared of vegetation for the project, but was abandoned after spending £100,000, without planting any nuts.116 By 1950, the Kongwa scheme—for which three farm units of 6,000 acres, 3,000 acres and 1,500 acres had been cleared—remained unplanted with groundnuts and was converted into grazing schemes.

These failures were due, first, to inadequate rainfall that resulted in poor crop yields and, second, the problem of working the soil with mechanized equipment incurred high operational costs. During the 1950-1951 growing season, about 35,000 acres could not be harvested due to hard baked soils using the machines.11. By 1954, indigenous pests had ruined the remaining crops and the schemes were abandoned.118

Although the groundnut schemes had initially served as a model of mechanized farming in tropical Africa, they were never able to solve the problems of soil conservation that appeared to be the central thinking behind the colonial policy. It was argued that the misapplication of ‘scientific knowledge to the African bush’ had exacerbated the ecological and economic problems introduced by the groundnut schemes.119 The motivation for investing in groundnut schemes had been economic, but the impacts were noticeably environmental, for example, the clearing of bush exposed soils to torrential rains that washed away the top soil.120 Arguably, the greatest failure was the application of unsuitable mechanized farming technologies in African savanna environments.121

The technical difficulties of clearing large areas using heavy machinery and planning rotational cropping appear to have been insurmountable. Moreover, the lack of equipment repair facilities meant that the planned expansions of the crop were never achieved.122 Consequently, despite the availability of funding, the groundnut production schemes failed.123 Inasmuch as the groundnut schemes had been a publicity stunt, their failure brought the viability of large-scale schemes into question for the first time. Analysts would later suggest that the schemes were ‘white elephants.’124 Despite the British Government spending £36 million in Tanganyika alone,12’ the disastrous failures of the groundnut schemes vindicated those who had cautioned against investments in large-scale agricultural schemes in Africa, where scientific knowledge of the environment was lacking. The failures resulted in the subsequent dissolution of the British Overseas Food Corporation. We next analyze experiences from grazing schemes—which turned out to be another disappointment for the colonies.

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